Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The gentle joy of R.C. Sherriff

pb1I recently read two novels by R.C. Sherriff in fairly quick succession – The Fortnight in September (1931) and Greengates (1936) – having never read anything by him before; they were the topic of a podcast I recorded. Both novels were published by Persephone, who have also published The Hopkins Manuscript, which is Sherriff in sci-fi mode – and I’m intrigued to find out what that mode is like. Because the two novels I read offer probably the most unalloyed pleasure I’ve had in reading uncomplex prose in ages.

The plots of both are very simple. In The Fortnight in September, Mr and Mrs Stevens and their three children go on holiday together. In Greengates, Mr and Mrs Baldwin decide to move to a new house when Mr Baldwin retires. There are slight nuances – what will Mr Stevens do about a powerful colleague being at the resort? How will the committee of the Baldwins’ new housing estate be formed? – but there is nothing dramatic in these novels. They simply unfold before us like a soothing pattern of ordinary life.

They sooth because they are ordinary – but they are not twee. In both novels, the characters suffer unease and uncertainty. Mrs Stevens would far rather stay at home than go on their annual outing; the small boarding house they’ve stayed in ever since their marriage is increasingly dilapidated, and they don’t know how long they’ll continue to go. In Greengates, there are many pages of dissatisfaction in retirement – as Mr Baldwin tries to get accustomed to being at home all the time, and Mrs Baldwin similarly tries to adjust – before their brave new future is identified and secured.

But something in Sherriff’s prose levels out anxieties. The only false moves in these novels come when the author forgets his strengths. In The Fortnight in September, for instance, there a moment when Mrs Baldwin is feared drowned, and one where their son Dick goes through an altogether unconvincing and sudden change of heart about his career – both instances belong in a less naturalistic novel. When we turn to the landlady trying to hide her increasingly poorness, or Mrs Stevens’ worrying about having left the window open, we are on safer ground.

I don’t know if either of these novels would be published today. There is something that seems unambitious about Sherriff’s writing – he doesn’t offer a multitude of perspectives or jump around in time; he doesn’t throw in something to make these storylines take a sudden turn for the dark. They begin at the beginning and keep going, at a remarkably measured pace, until they reach the end. It is the craft of novel-writing at its most deceptively simple – because they are somehow gripping without anything remotely tense taking place.

If I were to teach a class in creative writing (and there is no earthly reason why I would), I’d set these novels as homework. Trying to work out how he does it would be a rewarding exercise – or, having said that, perhaps a frustrating one, because I’ve come away with no idea, and plenty of admiration. Thank you, Persephone, for making some of these books available.

10 comments on “The gentle joy of R.C. Sherriff

  1. Attila the Checkout
    February 15, 2017

    I suggest you read “Stoner” by John Williams. I did so on a critic recommendation. For the first 50 pages I kept wondering why I didn’t bin the book! Was anything ever going to happen? But something kept me reading and by page 150 I realised I’d become fond of and anxious for and rooting for this terribly ordinary dull well-meaning teacher. He really is the Average Man, and in this I felt he represented me and all my fellow humans in our routine ordinariness. His last days are described in a marvel of lyrical prose. Try it.

  2. CFisher
    February 15, 2017

    I’m waiting for my copy of Greengates to arrive by post soon. From your review, I think I’m going like it a lot!

  3. heavenali
    February 15, 2017

    I totally adored The Fortnight in September and Greengates, and also The Hopkins Manuscript, the central character in that novel is very much Mr ordinary like the characters in those other novels, yet he is caught up in extraordinary events.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings
    February 15, 2017

    I think you would like The Hopkins Manuscript, Simon – I loved it, it’s one of my favourite Persephones!

  5. Pingback: R.C. Sherriff over at Vulpes Libris – Stuck in a Book

  6. Merenia
    February 16, 2017

    Does Alexander McCall Smith achieve similar in his novels perhaps – depicting ordinary but dignified lives where the scale of the action is minute but no less fascinating. Merenia 💚

  7. Joan Kyler
    February 16, 2017

    I love Sherriff’s books, too. I don’t usually like science fiction, but I loved The Hopkins Manuscript and will be surprised if you don’t like it, too. There is something very calming about his books and writing style, something I don’t think any contemporary author has achieved.

  8. Annabel (gaskella)
    February 21, 2017

    Loved The Hopkins Ms but haven’t read either of these but would like to one day. The protagonist in Hopkins is enjoyably pompous at the start too.

  9. Rosemary
    February 25, 2017

    The Fortnight in September is one of my most favourite novels. Like you Simon, I’ve never quite worked out how RC Sherriff does it. I love all the tiny but so telling social observations, the characters’ worries (just the kind of things I worry about: the cat, the train connections, inadvertently offending someone…), their small pleasures (the beach hut, the evening glass of port). I find Mrs Stevens the most sympathetic character (but maybe that’s because I’m at her age and stage in life!)

    I’ve not read Greengates – I’m
    going to now.

    Thanks for this review,

    Rosemary

  10. Rosemary
    February 25, 2017

    PS I don’t think
    McCall Smith is quite the same (though I love his Scotland St novels, especially as an Edinburgh resident). I always feel he’s having a gentle go at some people – Sherriff is surely much more sympathetic?

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This entry was posted on February 15, 2017 by in Entries by Simon, Fiction: 20th Century and tagged , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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